Hitzfeld finally handed World Cup chance

BASEL, Switzerland - Ottmar Hitzfeld, one of Europe's most successful coaches at club level, will finally make an appearance at the World Cup next year after leading Switzerland to South Africa.

Despite winning the European Champions League with two different clubs and seven Bundesliga titles, the German was repeatedly overlooked by his own country's national team and appeared set for retirement until Switzerland came calling.

Only 15 months later, after an unbeaten run of 11 matches, Switzerland have booked their place in South Africa, Wednesday's goalless draw at home to Israel guaranteeing them top spot in Group Two.

"For me, to take part actively at the World Cup for the first time is a dream come true," said Hitzfeld, who grew up across the border in Germany only a short distance from the St Jakob stadium where Switzerland play their home games.

"I grew up only 10 minutes from the Basel stadium, so this has made my success even more special."

Hitzfeld won two Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund and five with Bayern Munich. He also led Borussia to the Champions League title in 1997 and Bayern to the same trophy four years later.

He is not expected to win any silverware with Switzerland but merely getting them to their second World Cup in a row has been an impressive achievement for a squad of limited resources.

Hitzfeld has performed a remarkable about-turn for Switzerland, who were a demoralised outfit when he took over after they finished bottom of their group in Euro 2008 despite co-hosting the event.

The coach had a disastrous start when his side lost 2-1 at home to rank outsiders Luxemburg in a World Cup qualifer in only his second game in charge.

That had most critics writing off their chances of a World Cup appearance but they rebounded with home-and-away wins over main rivals Greece and by taking four points out of six from Latvia.

Hitzfeld's suggestion that Swiss players would be better off playing domestic football at home rather than warming the substitutes bench for bigger clubs abroad also seems to have paid off.

Record scorer Alex Frei and attacking midfielder Johan Vonlanthen are among the players who have enjoyed a new lease of life after signing for FC Basel and FC Zurich respectively at the start of the season.